Mary dropped out of school early and remembers being told she would amount to nothing if she didn’t apply herself. She felt like a square peg trying to fit a round hole. She lacked a sense of belonging as her family moved locations several times during her school years. Heading down a track of risk-taking behaviours, Mary found herself pushing the boundaries and getting her ‘highs’ from dirt bike riding, unsafe driving and other extreme sports.

A turning point for Mary was attending a church youth group in Wanganui with a community of young people who connected through activities. She started to feel like she fitted in - a place where she belonged and had value. This new-found sense of belief in herself gave her the confidence to start competing in motocross. Finishing third place in her first ever competition at the NZ Women’s Motocross Championship propelled her into the sport. Mary became a pioneer for women and world record holder in the sport of freestyle motocross. She was known as ‘Scary Mary Perkins’ while riding with the Crusty Demons.

Joel’s story was similar. By virtue of circumstances his family relocated and Joel had to shift high schools. At this pivotal adolescent age of finding independence and identity, Joel also found himself dropping out of school without the education he was capable of and venturing into extreme sports to get his fix. But it was finding a group of peers, even though he was still on the fringes, that kept him from heading off track. He later met Mary and the two resonated with each other’s stories.

Knowing the rejection of not fitting in or belonging that Mary and Joel both experienced has turned into their greatest direction. Understanding how critical it is to belong during the adolescence years and the influence it has on ones life is what gives the couple such a strong passion to make a difference. This desire to gather young people together started with Encounter FMX Ltd, an events company and then later on Encounter Camps began, which is now under the Youth Encounter Ministries Trust umbrella.

“Youth Encounter exists because we believe every person will encounter their God-given potential to live life wide open when they know they belong and believe in their true value.”

With 450 people engaging in eight different programmes the organisation offers, this dream of creating a space where young people can belong and live life wide open has become a reality for Mary and Joel. Not only does the organisation work with many at-risk youth, but also young people from more affluent homes who just need somewhere to belong.

Youth Encounter is a registered charity, fully funded by grants, generous sponsors, donations, fundraising events and our own social enterprise which operates specifically to raise funds. We currently have four full time staff and over 50 volunteers; Youth Encounter volunteers carry the same passion for seeing young people having a good time, finding their identity, being pushed outside their comfort zone and opening up to one another in a safe environment. Many of these volunteers have been impacted by Youth Encounter's programmes, growing up in this vibrant community throughout their teenage years. These volunteers now want to give back and be a leader, mentor and good example to other young people who are in a similar situation to where they once were.

“We want to journey with young people as they discover the truth about who they truly are; to show them that we believe in them and that they do belong and are valuable as they are; that there is a successful future there for them when they believe in who they truly are. We want to create an environment that accepts young people where they are at with no agenda to change them, but rather unleash and release that potential which we believe is already inside each individual.”

- Joel & Mary Wanhill


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